May 2008, Karen Kilimnik @ Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Karen Kilimnik, The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers, 2007.
Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York. Photo by Aaron Igler
Karen Kilimnik’s work has gained popularity over the past twenty years and currently a survey of her past and current work is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Her work spans all mediums and incorporates many different styles, subjects, and influences. Each medium provides a different view and perspective into Kilimnik’s life, while the exhibition as a whole transcends time and space to create a universal expression of Kilimnik’s childhood nostalgia mixed with contemporary events, characters, and ideals.
When you approach the exhibit, you are greeted with an installation from 1989 entitled: “The Hellfire Club episode of The Avengers.” The piece references an episode from the popular television show that was censored in 1966 due to a provocative outfit worn by one of the lead characters. Along with the reference of the subject matter from The Avengers, Kilimnik combines other British references with contemporary American happenings. In this piece, the blending of the subject matter and Kilimnik's personal views combines with the interaction of historical and current events, her own inspirations, and multiple literary, musical, and pop culture references to set the tone and disposition for her following pieces.
The exhibition is grouped by media: painting and drawings, photography and video, and installations. Each media provides viewers the opportunity to take a peek into a different window of Kilimnik’s world. Her paintings, mostly rendered in water-soluble oil, depict eerie baby-faced portraits of both recognizable and mysterious characters. Her drawings take an editorial approach, imitating sketchbooks and storyboards, combining quick renderings of people with handwritten and sometimes misspelled quotes and notes. The photography section features a series of Kilimnik herself posing as different celebrity guises. Her work in videography incorporates more of her own inspirations and subjects, evident in the classical and elevator music transposed over home videos, classic movies, and bad talk shows from the 1990s.
Karen Kilimnik, "The Red Room", 2007. Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art University of Pennsylvania.
Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.
The most notable works from the exhibition are Kilimnik’s installations. She loosely assembles objects such as stuffed animals, functional objects, photocopies, and glitter together to reference a specific time, location, or event. Each work creates its own expression of mood, tone, and point of view provided by Kilimnik herself. The transposition of vintage to contemporary, fact to fiction, innocence to maturity is found throughout Kilimnik’s work. This is evident in the installation: “I don’t like Mondays-The Boomtown Rats, Shooting Spree, or Schoolyard Massacre.” This piece features many references from today and yesterday laying among the bulls-eyes and on the wall, referring to events such as Columbine, Virginia Tech while also bringing a personal relatability to the piece through the use of childhood toys and recognizable characters and objects. Another sinister use of Kilimnik’s inspirations and interests is found in “Bluebird in the Folly,” her own secret garden, containing a whitewashed gazebo, a digitally synthesized forest, footage of ballerina Jurgita Dronina, and Russian literary and ballet references.
The culmination of Kilimnik work in installations is the piece entitled: “The Red Room in the modern Architecture,” where Kilimnik transports you to the late 17th century through the use of the red floral wallpaper, neoclassical furniture, and style of the paintings hung in salon style within the room. But as you look deeper into the paintings in the room, you realize that Kilimnik has found a way to insert herself into the work allowing you to continue looking into the window of her fanciful world with dark undertones and light political, literary, musical and cultural references.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief